I raised a point in my debate last Monday that I would like to flesh out more here. The typical apologetic strategy in debating the resurrection is to argue that it would virtually be impossible for Christianity and the belief in Jesus’ resurrection to have emerged without a miracle. When you break down all of the common arguments used to defend the resurrection, they essentially boil down to the logic that it would be psychologically impossible for the early disciples and Christian converts to believe and behave as they did, unless they had the full assurance that the resurrection was true. Consider the following examples:
“The apostles would have not been willing to be martyred, if they knew the resurrection were a lie!” i.e. It is psychologically impossible for multiple people to suffer and die for lies.
“Groups of people could not have simultaneously had post-mortem appearances of Jesus, if Jesus did not resurrect from the dead!” i.e. Group hallucinations are psychologically impossible.
I, of course, do not buy the premises underlying any of these arguments (for my refutation of the martyrdom argument, see here; for explaining group appearances, see here). However, I realized recently that even if the premises and conclusions of these arguments were true, they would still not make a good case for believing that Jesus had miraculously resurrected from the dead.
Here’s the problem: one can just as easily use the same logic to argue that it would be physiologically impossible for Jesus to resurrect from the dead.
A skeptic could demonstrate the effects that three days of brain death has upon a body and show that there is no way physiologically for Jesus to recover: Jesus’ heart would have permanently stopped beating, his brain would have starved of oxygen, his neural system would have disintegrated, massive cell death would decay his body, gases and acids would have filled his organs, rigor mortis would have set in, and his body would have started to rot.
Under these circumstances, it would be physiologically impossible for Jesus to be restored to life. When we add the additional detail that Jesus’ resurrected body was supposedly immortal and impervious to harm, we have even more physical impossibilities to explain.
So, even if the typical apologetic resurrection arguments were valid, they still would not present a better case for believing in the resurrection: it would come down to a case of believing what is physiologically impossible over what is psychologically impossible.
I, of course, do not think that there is anything psychologically impossible or even that remarkable about a non-miraculous origin of Christianity. The mind is far more malleable than the body, and throughout history people have believed and suffered for all sorts of ridiculous things for any number of reasons. But I think it is worth following the apologetic arguments to their logical conclusion to show how, even if they were true, at the end of the day there is no better reason to think that a physiological miracle had occurred versus a psychological miracle.
Here is the apologists’ next step: they will argue that, although it would be physiologically impossible for Jesus to resurrect by natural means, through the intervention of god it would not be impossible to resurrect through supernatural means. At this stage we are asked to believe in both gods and miracles, both which I see no good evidence for, but let’s follow this logic further down the rabbit hole.
The god behind Jesus’ resurrection is, according to the apologists, a good god who sent Jesus to die on behalf of our sins, so that we too could resurrect to an eternal life of joy. This god caused the resurrection in order to reveal himself in history, so that we could both know him and be saved. In other words, the resurrection hypothesis presumes the existence of a benevolent god who performed a physiological miracle to reveal himself.
But why should we believe in the existence of a good god over an evil god? What if an evil god, who wished us to be deceived, had intervened to cause a psychological miracle. Say that the apologists were correct that things like dying for lies and group hallucinations are psychologically impossible. Perhaps they are only impossible by natural means, but through the supernatural intervention of an evil god, he could create mass hallucinations and falsified evidence, while giving untold bravery to deceitful frauds who would now go to the grave for their lies, so that he could intervene in history to delude us with false hope.
Philosopher Stephen Law recently made a good case for why there is no better reason to believe in a good god over an evil god in his article The Evil God Challenge. His argument explores the typical apologetic excuses for the problem of evil. Our universe, as it is, has all sorts of unnecessary pain, animal brutality, and unjust suffering. How can a loving god really be in charge of our world, when there is all this evil?
Apologists respond with a number of common rationalizations for the ‘problem of evil’:
“Humans are responsible for our own suffering because of free will! God had to give us free will, so that we could be happy. Without free will we would just be robots who cannot experience conscious joy, but nevertheless humans often use their free will to cause evil and suffering.”
“The suffering in this world is only temporary, so that we can appreciate God’s nature and Heaven in the next world!”
Law observed that the same exact arguments could be used to defend the theodicy of an evil god. If an evil god exists, rather than the problem of evil, there is the philosophical problem of good in the world. Why, if an evil god is real, would he allow us to have family, friends, and love? Why do we experience joy and happiness, if an evil god is conspiring only to cause us pain and misery?
You can use the exact same arguments to rationalize the ‘problem of good’:
“Humans are responsible for the good in the world because of free will! The Evil God had to give us free will, so that we could be unhappy. Without free will, we would just be robots who cannot experience conscious torment and agony, but nevertheless humans often use their free will to cause good.”
“The good in this world is only temporary, so that we can lose all of our friends, family, and love in the next and fully appreciate the nature of God’s evil.”
Nobody in their right mind, however, believes in an evil god nor makes these absurd rationalizations to defend such a concept. From the nature of the world we live in, we can simply see that there is too much good for there to really be an omniscient force conspiring to cause evil behind it. And yet, people who hope for a good god, use the same faulty rationalizations to defend a world that has too much evil in it for there really to be a benevolent mind behind it.
Instead, our actual universe is dispassionate. Tidal waves curve neither towards nor away from cities. The world has both food and famine. Criminals escape punishment and are also brought to justice. No god, either good or evil, interferes with any of this. Law’s point is that if we have no better reason to believe in a good god over an evil one, and we can see that an evil god is an absurd concept, why should we believe in the concept of a good god? In reality, if we drop the one, we should drop the other.
Back to the resurrection: if I have no reason to believe in a good god over an evil god, I have no better reason to believe in a good god resurrecting Jesus through a physiological miracle, in order to save us, than I do to believe that an evil god caused a false resurrection belief through a psychological miracle, in order that we may be deceived with false hope. Rather, dropping both concepts, I recognize that, based on the type of world we live in, there is no reason to expect either kind of intervention. We live in a universe governed by dispassionate natural laws, not one with benevolent or malicious forces intervening to meddle in our affairs.
So, at the end of the day, the apologists’ case for the resurrection becomes guilty of special pleading. They want us to believe in what is physiologically impossible over what is psychologically impossible. Their solution is to claim that god performed a physiological miracle, but there is no better reason to believe in that than a psychological miracle. When taken to its logical conclusion, even if the apologists were correct in all of their arguments for the resurrection, they ultimately cannot make it the best explanation. If a miracle has to be at play, the probability of the physiological miracle over the psychological miracle is inscrutable. In that case, we can’t say that one is more reasonable to believe than the other, and thus we cannot say that it is more reasonable to believe in the resurrection.
Of course, this is all just for the sake of argument. There is nothing psychologically impossible about an ancient cult claiming that a guy resurrected from the dead. People believe all sorts of absurd things. But, even if the apologists win every hand, they arrive at a stalemate conclusion. Whereas by showing how Christianity actually emerged and how meager and flawed the evidence for the resurrection is, that stalemate moves pretty quickly to a greater probability for no miracle at all.